Coast.

Please note, sagacious reader, that this is Part 2 of my Ageas Bowl column-thing. So go read the previous blog too, eh? Maybe read it FIRST?!?

I need and deserve a break so this will be more… reflective. Less ball-by-ball action painting, more Fauvian-contemplative: or something. I need a walk, for starters.

Bairstow and Roy both put Joseph away in the second over of the reply. The former with a trademark, timed, wristy little number through midwicket, the latter with a confident pull. I do go walkabout.

Stunning gentleman parked on the stairs: suit, phone out. Friendly, passing punter chirps inoffensively, to which the man drawls ‘I am bored stiff’. Was Michael Holding. England are 61 for nought as I return.

Alarmingly early for any away support, we could be on body-language watch here. England have strolled and stroked their way to 71 for no loss, with ten gone. There’s a kindof assumption  already alighting that a humiliation looms. The visitors – new skipper and all – have to find something and not sure what the odds are on that. Perhaps that change of oeuvre – day into night – may offer them something? Time for daft speculation – scope for that in the drama-vacuum…

With Bairstow a) looking this comfortable and b) being so-o brilliantly competitive and bright and able, could he not bat high, for England… in Aus? Like unthinkably high.

Especially if there’s a post-Mbargo shiftaround, might we not opt to think of him primarily as a batter and bring in Foakes as the gloveman? (I personally think JB is so fit he may actually thrive on batting high and taking the gloves as well but this is another argument).

Bairstow is that bloody good you could stick him in at three, persist with that and he’d make a success of it – probably. Relative to other risks – like the Vince, Ballance, Malan ones, for example. Of the four, who would you most expect to get closest to doing an Ashes job, for England?

But I’ve daydreamed into a daft theory. Did I really actually write down all that stuff? Bugger. Roy has made fifty, almost contemptuously. *Drifts off again*…

Look I know there are/were issues for the Yorkie genius –  pushing at it outside off – but he’s so determined and gritty and hearty that he could surely leave stuff, leave stuff, leave stuff, if heavily instructed, until he’s ready to play? If he did manage to get set, against the Starcs and the Cummins’s, imagine how much fun being English/Welsh might be, come December?  (If this is crazy-naive, put it down to the woozifying afternoon sunshine now annointing the procession towards victory. 101 for 0, after 14).

Tempted now to relate a concern for one of our, leading media guys, having just seen him. But won’t. Instead I’ll say that this is feeling embarrassingly easy, for England. Roy has 76 and Bairstow 49. Believe me, they are coasting on the coast: a slow perusal of the Media Centre confirms the suspicion that *other things* are front and centre… and why not? The game feels gone.

The West Indies are getting battered, quietly but this does not forgive the comedy fielding. Twice outfielders make an utter horlicks of regulation gathers. Roy and Bairstow, sensing an absolute gift, play beautifully controlled, dynamic cricket, such that the natural target seems to be a ten wicket drubbing. Change in light, temperature and moisture-level seem to be the only things that can undermine England; the oppositon have become an irrelevance.

As dusk closes in, Roy, on 96,  is lb to Cummins. 158 for 1. Enter Root.

Bairstow remains. His energy remains fabulous. In particular the relentless chasing-out of singles, twos, threes. With his team way ahead, by the 25th over, he is still pressurising the fielders – simply by charging for maximum runs, time after time.

It’s a slow death, for the Windies. Root and Bairstow opt pretty entirely not to engage blast mode – just don’t need to.

Difficult to guess whether this way is more or less painful than a swift obliteration might be. Maybe the crowd get more time to enjoy more cricket, this way? Maybe an elegant but civilised flourish trumps a biffathon? Maybe I should go ask Michael Holding?

205 for 1 after 29.

In the 33rd, Root short-arm clubs Taylor through straight mid-on. It’s brutal. Next shot draws another error at the boundary – the sprawling fielder again conspiring to shove the ball over. Then Bairstow gets his ton, with an easy glide to third man.

I may have felt this before but the sense is that there’s nothing to stop England getting this for no further loss: they need less than fifty.

In the 36th, almost unbelievably, we get more charity at the boundary. I may be too knackered to count them but there have been five or six occasions where the sliding fielder has carted or cushioned the ball over the rope. A very unfunny video of this may just get played at the Windies tour debrief.

England need 15 from 82 balls. Which tells you most of what you need to know. Bairstow is now standing and hitting, triumphantly.

Root finishes it with a straight six, off Samuels. A nine-wicket win, with Bairstow there on 141 and Root 46. The headlines may revert to brutally dismissive mode around the hapless tourists… unless there are other things to talk about?

 

 

 

 

 

Views.

I’ve had David Coleman’s signature squawk reverberating through my consciousness this week.

EXTRAORDINARY!!

This of course a function of my age and disposition as a dumbed-down sporty geezer, every ‘natural’ response to news or events played out around the place being filtered through ball(s)-tinted memory.

So no surprises that what felt like an EXTRAORDINARY week of cricket-related drama – Newlands/Gayle/Big Bashings – resulted in such a violent struggle for understanding that I’m fearing I may myself have been the subject of this other Colemanballs…

He just can’t believe what’s not happening to him.

Nor can I be sure if

In a moment we hope to see the pole vault over the satellite

is something a daft-but-lovable commentator once said or a perfectly reasonable – if surrealist – appreciation of how things currently are.

Life is bewilderingly wunnerful but I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the coalescence – or should that read ‘submergence? – of World Events into the chavisthmus that is sport-in-my-head. I’m not sure how wise or practicable or manageable it is, being unsure which time-zone hold sway or where the edges are between Dukes or Kookaburras or Gun Control or Nuclear Tests. Pretty frequently, it’s turned out (sorry Bethan, sorry kids!) I’ve been both manically watchful and glazed over; immune and ecstatic; absent and then wallowing in the profound. Essentially lost to it.

This evening is a very different evening from the morning we had this morning.

Much of this is down to the Test Match at Newlands, a venue which c’mo-on, has hardly helped. As a plainly ludicrous mixture of the sun-blasted, glacially-perfect picture postcard-with-chronic-baggage and the symphonically serene (but not)… this choice of location location has done nothing to still the fast-twitch/slow-mo-ness of *experience*.

The second thrash between South Africa and England has been something else. Principally it’s been a reminder that the word epic is waaay too small, too monotone.

Five days in a Test Match. Suddenly that’s become a subject for debate not a statement of fact. The Instagram Generation snipping and snapping away – eroding. The Authorities frantically feeling the pulse of Public Opinion. (Quite rightly.) Thunder rumbling elsewhere – colourful, relevant, undeniably (financially) attractive thunder. And pray what did the gods of Table Mountain portend? Of what did they speak? And what be their message?

Firstly, that Test Cricket ain’t dead. Not even over that crazily anachronistic five day thing it ain’t dead. In fact (yes, whilst we take stock and whilst we inevitably make increasing provision for short-format cricket) Newlands spoke eloquently of the unique fascinations of the long-form game.

Nothing else has all of it. Not the brewing or unraveling individual processes with scope for redemption four/five days later… in the same game(!) Not the accruing mental challenges that wear upon the soul, the confidences, in different genres. Not that cruel exposure when your bit fails – when you let down your mates, your country – or (despite ALL THAT TIME, that selfless effort!!) you cannot make a breakthrough. Not that particular kind of poignant exhilaration, when your ton means everything to you, your dad, maybe and yet this is not, ultimately, triumph itself.

We can talk about the event or the events for decades (and may) but surely Newlands can only be understood as some kind of majestic, appalling, glorious, defiant, inconclusive tribute to (or of) our capacity to view. To understand perspective, meaning, action – substance. Look at Stokes! Look at Bairstow. Look at that shrunken Amla reinventing some form, some proper Amla! Look at the implications of that field change; the offer of that boundary over the top. Look at the newspaper, even – it’s gone quiet. What day is it – or sorry, which day is it?

The word is unique. And whilst of course this doesn’t necessarily or always mean good it does mean something. Probably that anything providing this measure of drama and tension and atrophy and drinking time and perplexity and grief and scope really may, in our short-format world, be kinda precious. The knitting or muttering aproval or the silent joy of it. Maybe especially that thing that non-cricketpeeps don’t get – that dimension of time: the thing that means it’s okay to miss something or drift from proceedings and still be completely doing the cricket.

So forgive me for not majoring on Stokes or Bairstow or Amla or the pitch. That’s all stored, for sure, alongside the blurred recognition of this week’s iconic facts and figures. What got me though was the sense of twisting, turning, unfurling but then foreclosed drama. The kind of drama over time you just don’t see.

Elsewhere the Gayle controversy confirmed everyone’s prejudices about everything – unsurprisingly. However if you didn’t hear Melinda Farrell and Neroli Meadows interviewed for ABC Grandstand then you effectively lose the right to your opinion. As I said on twitter

Not good enough to say the #Gayle thing – however it was intentioned – was ‘harmless’. Harm was done.

Finally, something sad. Two young men – one 22, one 28 – deeply embedded into that soft target the #cricketfamily were lost to us, suddenly, in recent days.

As I write the circumstances around their deaths remain (I hope this doesn’t sound either callous or indiscreet) slightly uncomfortably mysterious. But what is clear to me from my involvement with both that cricket community and the internet is that a genuine and powerful amount of love for these fellas has been stirred; suggesting overwhelmingly they were outstanding humans as well as outstanding talents.

Can we agree that in all sincerity the names of Matt Hobden and Tom Allin have been marked and appreciated within our disparate but strangely/wonderfully united throng? Can we accept both the sadness and the fact that they were involved – they made an elite-level contribution – to something fabulous? To cricket.

I’m fearful of finishing on a morbid or a corny note. But would like to say something about the value and maybe the appeal of this daft game of ours. And I promise this won’t be a quote from David Coleman.

I get why people love cricket. (I do.)  It’s something to do with the richness of the challenges. The diversity. Or maybe just the feel of a new ball – a cherry-red cricket ball – in your hand. Or it’s the tactical ‘get your head round this, skip’ thing. Or it’s the slowness, or the rewards for flow, for timing, for movement. Or it’s how, in its incredible complexity it’s so simply revealing of the human. That bloke or girl swinging a bat, bowling a ball.

But hey, that’s just how I look at it.

We need some facts. (Dream on.)

It’s an unspecified time during Christmas. So I could be dreaming or under the influence of exotic chocolate liquors – meaning extravagantly packaged, diesel-filled ‘seasonal treats’. My best guess is that I’m simply up early to listen to cricket.

#TMS and a quiet house. And in time the relatively un-glorious dawn chorus, via a handful of unseen, presumably gale-tossed and bedraggled birds. I release into them. Quietly but chirpily, in the dank and dark, I go travelling.

From the beautiful but sopping West to London – the point of departure. Down into the Tubes that my wife plans to ‘avoid with the children’.
It’s down there – or going down there – that in some Orwellian confluence of Norths and Souths and whirrs and clunks I have that out-of-body witness-thing; watching silently as England, pristine in their whites, inevitably on the up escalator, pass South Africa as they descend.

Amla is looking quiet, Steyn angry and de Villiers strangely disconnected as they slide away. Weirdly, I think I’m still hearing birds. Cook and Root and co meanwhile are bouncing. All smiles and gurns and territorial in-jokes as they rise.

That feels good but we need some anti-indulgent facts here.

The first one that springs to mind (the news that Lemmy just died) feels unhelpfully non-focussing. What’s more real is the lack of sun around my fizzog and warming beer in my paws – confirming I’m still in Wales. So I haven’t entirely Gone Barmy – or at least didn’t get on a plane, or on a tube. No. The dog’s sleeping on my feet, being massaged by my twitching toes. I can see that, feel that. And #TMS is on.

England, as I begin to write, have a lead of 350. Bairstow, coming in at the most perfect of perfect times, has clonked a few, encouragingly positively. Moeen is in there with him and the prospects for South Africa are not good; somewhere between bleak and utterly dispiriting. The sense is that given Amla’s disappearance, Steyn’s issues and the South African public’s relative non-engagement (in Durban, at least) a killer momentum has already been established in this series – and not for the home side.

That may be premature but the impression persists – at least until the South Africans bat. Things skate on, do they not, but I think I’m right in recalling the essences: Broad again rose to the occasion as Leader of the Pack, Mo rolled those fingers and on a trying surface our batsmen stuck at it better? Importantly, Compton and Taylor have done absolutely what they were drafted in to do; applied themselves; job done.

Regarding Compton, I suspect I may not have been alone in wondering whether his relentless campaigning in the media might have worked against his chances of a recall – certainly Graeme Swann appears to be fed up of the bloke, given his endless mithering about the Middlesex batsman’s lack of dynamism – but the Harrow educated, South African-born grandson of Denis has earned his chance… and taken it.

Rightly going against the grain of the daft or disproportionate (but apparently non-negotiable) positivity being preached by everyone with a Level 4 Coaching Certificate, @thecompdog has ground out runs in the historical (meaning arguably dull but crucially opposition-shrinking manner) favoured by everybody who Played the Match Situation, pre 2010. Frankly I don’t warm to the bloke – that self-publicising plus the South African/Harrovian combo doesn’t exactly light the fires of my enthusiasm – but he has been exactly what England needed for this series.

Likewise Taylor. Possibly more so, given his ability to transcend that Diggin’ In mode. The wee fella has got those dancin’ feet moving nicely, to shore up the England batting and manifestly reduce the pressures on Hales and Stokes in particular. Size-wise, personality-wise and contribution-wise, it seems a good balance has been established – for which we have to credit Farbrace and Bayliss. It’s always a question of blend and England look to have most things covered.

Hales will remain a concern until he fires. He has profited from both an absence of other openers and from that fine understanding a propos the team balance. In acknowledging that success, I restate my suspicion that the fashion for positivity (which of course we all love to see!) is over-emphasised – in my view because it’s a seductively blokey if not laddish concept that sits nicely with any coaches need to sound or be generous towards freeing up and ‘expressing talent’. But this is Test Cricket – a test over time – where things are (or often need to be) more slowly gained.

We all get that it’s important to entertain the punters. We all get that times have changed and run rates have bounded forward. But both ‘holistically’ and tactically there is no need for (our) Test Cricket to morph entirely into the other formats. Let 50 overs and T20 provide the boomathon for the masses and let Compton be Compton (in Tests.  Don’t pick him for the other stuff.)  His pedigree doggedness can then set things up for Stokes to be Stokes – boomtastically so, if the match situation allows.

And now back to #TMS, which is buzzing as England reach a lead of 415. Bairstow has enjoyed himself – 79 from 76 – and South Africa have 140 overs to endure. If their body-language doesn’t improve they are more likely to face humiliation than honourable defeat.

This is a potentially significant triumph, then, for England. Stepping into Steyn and Morkel’s back yard and – without arguably hitting peak form – dismissing the World Number Ones with some ease. We look a good side; despite the questions that remain over Hales, Woakes, Bairstow’s keeping(?) and Moeen’s admittedly improved bowling. Through the four match series, things could get alarming for the home side if Cook provides an anchor around which that long England batting line-up can swing.

Dangerous, yes, to come over too optimistic. Bayliss and Farbrace though, have already earned a lump of credit – faith, even. The central allegation against this England group – that there are still far too many batting collapses – seems likely to recede when the evolving team settles. That seems only natural and as the coaches appear to be gathering their posse in good order so things should get better yet.

(*Fatal*!)

The project, however, remains unfinished. Personally I’m not clear if Woakes or Hales will become fixtures; I’m guessing the former won’t and this is only partly because a certain Burnley Express will surely return.

Hales may get an extended opportunity even if he plays fitfully; that seems right because we all know (and the coaches will clearly know) that he’s something of a longshot. He’s such a stranger to playing the traditional opener’s percentages that Hales must either be overlooked completely or persisted with philosophically. Because the group are sending out a message. I do hope there will be a time – coming to a packed venue near you – when Cook is quietly imperious and Hales, his partner, is lankily Warner-like.

Elsewhere the side looks strong – like if somebody fails somebody will surely storm on through. Cook Hales Compton Root Taylor Stokes Bairstow Moeen Broad? In the New Year, why wouldn’t we be dreaming?

 

Brief postscript – in which we pile on the positives.

  • For Moeen’s bowling to (ahem) turn out so well is MASSIVE for him and for England.  A significant step towards legitimacy as an international spinner… and hooooge for his personal confidence. Plus he’s Man of the Match, if a little surprisingly.
  • Compton and Taylor and that successful blend thing. (A blend that may change of course, depending on what the opposition offer.  Again the fact that we look to have a strong SQUAD is looking useful in this regard.)
  • Bairstow’s batting – if not the glove(s)manship – was doing exactly that *making a positive statement* thing the management would have dreamed about.  Behind the sticks he may never be the finished article… but you trying choosing between him and Buttler?
  • Root.  Let’s not forget.  Brilliant… and brilliant contributor to the team *humour.*
  • And talking of which… That Group Feeling.  England are rightly cock ‘a the wotsits and over the parrot.  They whupped the World Number 1s.  They are strong allround… and the feeling is that they may well get better – whether or not Jimmy Jimmy walks back into the side.

Now.  Where are those dodgy chocolates again?